Sigmund Freud evidently believed that Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche had a more “penetrating self-knowledge” than any other human being has ever had. If Freud’s analysis is accurate, perhaps it explains why Nietzsche’s written output so closely reflects aspect of the human psyche; like our minds, his philosophy is powerful but occasionally difficult to untangle, given apparent contradictions and complications. From among the strands of his thought, however, emerge coherent patterns. For example, although the ideas involved are convoluted, Nietzsche repeatedly asserted that a morality rooted in notions of good and evil originated in weakness, is destructive, and is arbitrary. Instead of morality, Nietzsche affirmed a value system that was based on embracing the worldly, the paradoxical, and the “evil” of noble strength and joyous independence.
The “morality” which Nietzsche eschewed included ego-less, will-less, self-denying, and unselfish actions, where an individual denies itself for the betterment of the many. Nietzsche also described destructive morality as one that claims to be absolute and universal, is based on a desire for “the triumph of good and the and annihilation of evil” [The Will To Power, sec 30], and includes a desire for an far-off, idealized perfection such as the Christian “God in Heaven”, the Hindu “Brahma” or the Muslim “Allah”, the scientific “Truth”, or the Marxist “worker’s paradise”.
Moral virtues listed by Nietzsche included “industriousness, obedience, chastity, piety, justness” [The Gay Science, sec 21]. He also contemptuously described the moralistic “careful avoidance of the ridiculous, the offensive, the presumptuous, the suppression of one’s virtues as well as of one’s strongest inclinations, [and the] self-adaptation, self-depreciation, [and] submission to orders of rank” [Daybreak, sec 26].
Although Nietzsche was brought up Christian, he extended his discussion of the morality of good and evil more broadly. He included all religion, as well as all philosophy (Schopenhauer was repeatedly used as an example of having a moralistic bent, as were Hegel, Plato, Augustine, some of Nietzsche’s German contemporaries, and even Spinoza and The Buddha). As expressions of the moral, Nietzsche also listed science, socialism-communism, “the authority of reason, the social instinct (the herd), history with an imminent spirit and goal to it” [The Will to Power, sec 20] or any other expression of idealism or transcendentalism. “One has to eradicate, annihilate, wage war: everywhere the Christian-nihilistict[-moralistic] value standard still has to be pulled up and fought under every mask” [The Will to Power, sec 51], he proclaimed, recognizing morality’s many visages.
Nietzsche put forth many ideas about how common moral systems develop, both in societies and in individual humans, but all of his ideas maintain that they are a manifestation of sickness and weakness. In this vein, much of his 1887 book On the Genealogy of Morals was devoted to an extended creation myth that explained what he saw as the twisted and unfortunate birth of morality.
Nietzsche conceptualized some people as strong, honorable, and noble, figurative “birds of prey,” but most people as unfortunately being weak, detestable, cowering, and “lamb”-like. This split is still true today, he posited, but, it was during prehistory, when societies and social orders first formed, that the former, the beautiful, aristocratic, warlike, and naturally powerful, first dominated the herd of the latter, with their common, cowardly, impotent, lowly, passive, and reactive ways. The strong bathed the weak in their contempt, inventing the word “bad” to describe their inferior ways.
The ruling overlords held the “master morality,” which contrasted the “good” (noble, strong, and utilitarian) with the “bad” (plebeian, weak, and ineffective); the herd, however, eventually produced a divergent morality. The domination of the masters forced the weak to bottle the energy of their the naturally-outflowing animal instincts up, a self-violent backlog which eventually gave them a store of “bad conscience” and submerged vengefulness (Nietzsche’s term for this was the French word “ressentiment“). The repressed people soon experienced a “denial of [themselves], of [their] nature, naturalness, and actuality” [On the Genealogy of Morals, essay 2, sec 22], a storehouse of venom that was soon directed by the tortured and treacherous herd not only against themselves but also against the masters, and against any and all life-affirming qualities everywhere.
According to Nietzsche, the commoners soon came up with the slave morality, a vision of themselves as “good” and of their weak powerlessness as meritorious: “morality guarded the underprivileged from insignificance by assigning each an infinite value, a metaphysical value” [The Will to Power, sec 55]. The weak further posited that their masters were not “bad” (as in ineffective) but instead “evil” (as in wicked or corrupt). The weak condemned the noble ones’ joyous appetite for life as cruel, lustful, insatiable, selfish, and godless. “Morality consequently taught [humans] to hate and despise most profoundly what is the basic character trait of those who rule: their will to power” [The Will to Power, sec 55], meaning their love of life, their creative zest, their ability to thrive and find health, and their belief in their own basic right to exist. Common morality, then, is, according to Nietzsche, essentially and always an anti-life proposition.
Nietzsche believed that the morality of his modern era, especially Christian morality, was predominantly a manifestation of the resentful slave morality of the weak herd. Speaking of many of his fellow Germans, he observed that
they monopolize virtue, these weak, hopelessly sick people … they walk among us as embodied reproaches, as warnings to us – as if health, well-constitutedness, strength, pride, and a sense of power were in themselves vicious things for which one must pay someday. [On the Genealogy of Morals, essay 3, sec 14]
The slave morality, that morality of good and evil, then, grows out of weakness and unhealth, and it resents strength and wellness.
In some books written before On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche explained a different theory of the origin of morality. Here, he explained, morality in a given society began with utilitarianism, an awareness of good and bad, useful and not useful (which, broadly speaking, the author later called “master morality”). Unfortunately, “out of fear or reverence for those who demanded and recommended them, or out of habit because one has seen them done all around one from childhood on, or from benevolence because their performance everywhere produced joy and concurring faces, or from vanity because they were commended” [The Wanderer and his Shadow, sec 40], the simple and realistic utilitarian assessments gave way to rigid traditions that took on the metaphysical labels of “good” and “evil”. Such societies held all moral customs tightly from then onwards, and punished the breaking of any tradition, no matter how “stupid” [Human, All Too Human, sec 92] the tradition in question.
Here again, morality is seen as a sign of weakness and unhealth, arising from an unwillingness to face the demands of dynamism. The costs of this sickness include the lost freedom of the individual [Assorted Opinions and Maxims, sec 89] in the face of the “tyranny of the unconditional” [Assorted Opinions and Maxims, sec 26] and the fact that anything new is inevitably seen as “evil,” even things that will eventually be beloved and seen as “good.” Nietzsche stated that, “under the dominion of the morality of custom, [individuality and] originality of every kind has acquired a bad conscience” [Daybreak, sec 9], leading to its lessened fruition.
Nietzsche also posited theories concerning how morality arises in individuals, all of them pointing to sickness as its source. Individual moral beliefs, he suggested, may be a manifestation of “the herd instinct” [The Gay Science, sec 115] in an individual person (i.e. the slave morality), or it may be the unexamined psychological remnants of the cruel prohibitions of childhood (what Freud later labeled the “super-ego“, and modern psychology calls “The Inner Critic”), mistaken in later life for the voice of God or duty [The Wanderer and his Shadow, sec 52]. Or individual morality may instead be a cowardly desire for protection from the danger and messiness of human existence, by trying to create a secure and predictable environment [Daybreak, sec 174]; or it may be to artificially create somber “unconditional duties” [The Gay Science, sec 5] that are evoked to justify a melancholy temperament and to demand unconditional support from parishioners. Nietzsche seems to have most thought, however, that individual morality arose from a sense of self-hate; he characterized the strongest advocates of morality as self-despising failures, ashamed of their existence, who seek the “appearance of superiority over more spiritual men, to enjoy, at least in [their] imagination, the delight of consummate revenge [through] morality” [The Gay Science, sec 359]. In sum, then, Nietzsche posits that weakness, unhealth, and helplessness are the source of the superiorist selflessness and the evaluations of good and evil that constitute modern morality, both at the level of society and at the level of individual.
Nietzsche’s descriptions of the origins of morality are important because they are prime evidence for his claim that moral values are both arbitrary and destructive. His genealogies propel his “revaluation of all values” [The Will to Power, subtitle].
Nietzsche hoped to show that morality is always an arbitrary construction with no external universality or necessity, even when people are unaware of this fact. He took issue with the Christian claim to knowledge of absolute moral Truth [The Will to Power, sec 4], a grievance which is subsumed under his general lament that humans fail to recognize that they have given our ideas lives of their own and begin to think of these ideas as objective realities [Assorted Opinions and Maxims, sec 26]. “Men of knowledge … are not men of knowledge with respect to” self-awareness [On the Genealogy of Morals, preface, sec 1], he further stated, asserting that the moral philosophies of “categorical imperatives” created by philosophers always derive from autobiographical experience and little else [Beyond Good and Evil, sec 6], despite not being acknowledged as such. In frustration, Nietzsche cried out,
is the origin of all morality not to be sought in the detestable petty conclusions: ‘what harms me is something evil (harmful in itself); what is useful to me is something good (beneficent and advantageous in itself)? [Daybreak, sec 102]
Nietzsche was frustrated because he believed that his fellow citizens forgot their act of creating moral values when they later believed the same values to be objectively “True”; “how little moral would the world appear without forgetfulness” [Human, All Too Human, sec 92], he exclaimed. Nietzsche was also frustrated that people overlooked the evidence for morality’s subjectivity found in its constant “mutation … moiling and toiling” over time [Daybreak, sec 98]. For example, if one saw that the moral values of a society rise and fall in relation to the interests of those who they benefit [The Will to Power, sec 14], and are not “eternally” stable, one might have less faith in them. Similarly, if one saw that the “universal” and ’’timeless” moral justification that has been made for penal punishment has taken at least eleven different forms [On the Genealogy of Morals, essay 2, sec 13], one might be more reluctant to accept this “eternal” value1.
Nietzsche probably wanted his readers to see this transitoriness of morality so that they could then understand morality’s emptiness and arbitrariness, a central point to his philosophy. One reason why morality is empty for Nietzsche is because it assumes free will, culpability, and accountability. Nietzsche, however, claimed that those beliefs are abstractions from reality, linguistic conventions and beliefs of lesser minds, that lack any corporeal analogues or actual existence. His claim was, instead, that there is no actual freedom to choose between moral alternatives, and that people are always acting for the good as best their intellect and awareness allows; “actions are called evil which are only stupid” [Human, All Too Human, sec 107], he explained. In a similar vein, he posited that the distinction between “un-egoistic/good” and “egoistic/evil” is another illusion, given that all actions are inevitably directed towards self-preservation to some extent. Much of the concept of good and evil evaporates, he believed, if one understands the human’s place in the universe.
Many moral concepts will also evaporate, Nietzsche believed, if one understands better how humans project human realities onto a valueless universe. Nature itself is not divided up into any good and evil, he believed, seeing how “there are no moral phenomena at all, only a moral interpretation of phenomena” [Beyond Good and Evil, sec 108]. Moral culpability is always a purely human invention, even when all people involved in a given event are convinced of its reality, as at a witch-trial. And while Nietzsche elsewhere lamented the “hyperbolic naiveté” of humanity [The Will to Power, sec 12] in its presumption in claiming knowledge of an Absolute morality, and also its lack of modesty in blowing up its needs into cosmic and metaphysical values [The Will to Power, sec 27], he also expressed hope by saying that
when man gave all things a sex he thought, not that he was playing, but that he had gained a profound insight: -it was only very late that he confessed to himself what an enormous error this was, and perhaps even now he has not confessed it completely. -In the same way man has ascribed to all that exists a connection with morality and laid an ethical significance on the world’s back. One day this will have as much value, and no more, as the belief in the masculinity or femininity of the sun has today. [Daybreak, sec 3]
Similarly, he explained that
what mankind has so far considered seriously have not even been realities but mere imaginings – more strictly speaking, lies prompted by the bad instincts of sick natures that were harmful in the most profound sense – all of these concepts, ‘God,’ ‘soul,’ ‘virtue,’ ‘sin,’ ‘beyond,’ ‘truth,’ ‘eternal life’. [Ecce Homo, Why I Am So Clever, sec 10]
For Nietzsche, then, the universe is without moral value; good and evil are projected upon nature by humans in their sickness and their weakness, and in their unawareness of their own mental processes2.
As mentioned earlier, when discussing origins, morality for Nietzsche is not only arbitrary and illusory, but it is also actively dangerous. He thought that healthy cultures and individuals leave God and morality behind, and that sick nations, in a mildly “mentally- ill” state, cannot [The Will to Power, sec 47]. With regards to both nations and people, he questioned, “what if a symptom of regression were inherent in the ‘good’, likewise a danger, a seduction, a poison, a narcotic … so that precisely morality was the danger of dangers?” [On the Genealogy of Morals, preface, sec 6], and answered his own question by labeling Jesus, the great moral “redeemer,” the most “dangerous bait” [On the Genealogy of Morals, essay 1, sec 8].
One reason why Nietzsche found conventional morality dangerous was because he believed that its use lacked any real benefits. According to him, morality serves to shield people from despair and nihilism [The Gay Science, sec 214] by giving them a vain justification for their life. Morality also enables one to better compete with one’s neighbors, because they are handicapped by repudiating their natural humanity in an attempt to be “good” [The Gay Science, sec 21]. Beyond these questionable benefits, however, Nietzsche says, traditional morality is an empty bargain.
A second reason why Nietzsche found morality dangerous is its demand for pity, which he considered to be a trap. Pity was the perilous test that was overcome by Nietzsche’s poetic alter-ego, Zarathustra, and it is “man’s greatest danger” [The Genealogy of Morals, essay 3, sec 14], more dangerous than evil or immorality. Moralistic pity probably poses such a grave danger for Nietzsche because it tends to level human society, unnaturally causing the strong to surrender their will-to-power and leading to the loss of humanity’s greatest resource. “Supposing [pity] were dominant even for a single day, [hu]mankind would immediately perish of it” [Daybreak, sec 134], warned Nietzsche, who was almost Social Darwinist in stating that “Nature is not immoral when it has no pity for the degenerate” [The Will to Power, sec 52] and suggesting that humans should follow suit.
A third reason why Nietzsche sees morality as dangerous is because, as explained in discussing the origins of morality, it holds back the strong, the dynamic, and the creative, labeling all that is new or fully alive as “evil;” “the categorical imperative smells of cruelty”, he accuses [The Genealogy of Morals, essay 2, sec 6].
A final reason why Nietzsche mistrusts morality is because it is life-denying, and therefore implicitly leads to asceticism and to the hopelessness of nihilism. Morality is “a piece of tyranny against ‘nature'” [Beyond Good and Evil, sec 188] that has “exacted a high price” [The Will to Power, sec 7], he warned; “moral value judgments are a way of passing sentence, negations; morality is a way of turnings one’s back on the will to existence” [The Will to Power, sec 11], making it basically unhealthy for the human organism.
Morality “offends” nature and existence because it is, as Nietzsche posited it, essentially a defense mechanism, a twisting of life to avoid pain. If such a pose is maintained for extended periods of time, in an individual or a society, sickness results. Large portions of life and self are repudiated and attacked as evil, and the present is always found lacking in comparison with the perfect beyond. One also strives constantly to meet an unreachable ideal, to be all “good” and never “evil,” without ever allowing oneself to express one’s dynamic strength, to experience the relief of acting “as all the world does and ’let [oneself] go’ like all the world” [The Genealogy of Morals, essay 2, sec 24], or to relax and love ones fate exactly as it occurs, all of which are Nietzschian aims of existence.
Because of this striving, this denying, and the associated repression of facilities, and because the ascetic need for truth will always inevitably uncover the emptiness of moral valuations and leave one with no objective truths, Nietzsche claimed that idealism, theism, and any other form of otherworldly morality lead to ascetic nihilism, to “the weary pessimistic glance, mistrust of the riddle of life, the icy No of disgust with life” [The Genealogy of Morals, essay 2, sec 7]. Morality leads humanity to becoming the “sick animal” [The Genealogy of Morals, essay 3, sec 13]; he says that it shuts off the will-to-live in this universe, and one is left instead with being ’’’too good’ for this world” [The Genealogy of Morals, essay 3, sec 1], with guilt, shame, bad conscience, with a total lack of meaning, a “Why?” with no answer [The Will to Power, sec 2], with a denaturalized, detached, idealistic condemnation of any action [The Will to Power, sec 37], and with irritation at sensuality, marriage, “riches, princes … women … the light” and anything else one could possibly “do without” [On The Genealogy of Morals, essay 3, sec 8].
Nietzsche felt clear that a crisis of crushing nihilism would expose the “shabby origin” of Christian values [The Will to Power, sec 7], and, after a transitory stage of nihilism, faith in God and then all judgmental morality would disappear. “It is impossible and no longer permissible to accuse and judge the individual, the poor wave in the necessary wave play of becoming,” he stated [Assorted Opinions and Maxims, sec 33]. Nietzsche clearly wished to see the introduction of a stronger species of post-morality humans come of all of this, even if it meant extinction of the homo sapien species as it currently exists [Daybreak, sec 456, On the Genealogy of Morals, essay 2, sec 12]. This would perhaps ensure a victory for ancient Rome over Biblical Jerusalem, an end to the ageless battle between what Nietzsche saw as the “good” and “bad” noble morality of the former against the “good” and “evil” slave morality of the latter [On the Genealogy of Morals, essay 1, sec 16]. It should be emphasized that Nietzsche repeatedly denied alignment with any Darwinian or Hegelian notions of evolution, and that he expressed belief in constant change, but not in any sense of global progress.
Zarathustra did, however, present a clear paradigm for “moral” progress for a given individual [Thus Spoke Zarathustra, book 1, “Of Three Metamorphoses”]. He presented a poem in which a transcendent individual starts first as a weight-bearing spirit, a camel, a being who was saturated with challenges and with other people’s values. This camel eventually transforms into a fierce lion who has slain the dragon of “thou shalt,” emancipating the spirit from the burden of categorical morality. Having achieved this freedom, the spirit finally became a child, “innocence and forgetfulness, a new beginning, a sport, a self-propelling wheel, a first motion, a sacred Yes.”
While Nietzsche clearly not only rejected but attacked almost all of the moral systems he encountered, Zarathustra’s story illustrated the fact that he was clearly not without “morality” or “values,” in a broader sense. Nietzsche was, after all, a philosopher, a writer, and an academic; how could he not have some guidelines and signposts for the living of life?
But Nietzsche also had more than just a few suggestions, he actually had a well-developed “morality,” one without God and without good and evil, as evidence by the beautiful image of the value-creating infant. He has been seen as a forerunner to the existentialism of the twentieth century because he believed in finding one’s own path3, and creating one’s own morals that are “life- advancing, life-preserving, species-preserving”. He believed in affirming this here-and-now Earthly reality, with all of its messy complication, as emphasized by his doctrine of eternal recurrence, and despising any perfect beyond. He believed following a will-to-health, an overcoming of illness and handicap, and a self-overcoming where one harnesses intelligence and passions towards creative goals like übermenchen such as Da Vinci and Goethe. He believed in not holding resentments or debts, in honesty and straighforwardness, and in being strong enough to hear and tell ugly truths. He believed in adventure and experimentation, he believed in a “Russian fatalism” where one accepted and loved whatever fate one was dealt. He believed in saying “I teach No to all that makes weak – that exhausts ,[and saying] Yes to all that strengthens, that stores up strength” [The Will to Power, sec 54]. He believed in small things, like climate and cuisine, over what he considered the falseness of metaphysics [Ecce Homo, Why I am So Clever, sec 10], and he believed in victory over God and over nothingness [Ecce Homo, essay 2, sec 24]. He believed in “war and victory … conquest, adventure, danger, and even pain … the keen air of heights … ice and mountains in every sense … sublime wickedness, an ultimate, supremely self-confident mischievousness in knowledge … great health!” [Ecce Homo, essay 2, sec 24].
Nietzsche’s morality system is also remarkable among those of Western philosophers due, not only to it orgiastic life- affirming, but to its related phenomena of its “naughtiness” and holism. It dares to laugh, to test, to do the forbidden and to affirm, “let’s try it” to any challenge. Further, being beyond good and evil, he considered it to embrace the whole without exclusion; it can see the strengths of its enemies (“Man would rather will nothingness than not will”), and it can see that the virtuous and the evil are not as distinct as many have long supposed. The Swiss Psychiatrist and student of Sigmund Freud, Carl Gustav Jung, was, like Freud, an avid reader of Nietzsche. When Jung said that Christianity was more of a Quadrinity than a Trinity, since one must include Satan as part of the conception of a Divine whole, one can perfectly see the influence of the off-beat, inclusive, and reality-affirming morality that the foe of traditional morality Friedrich Nietzsche did embrace.
1. Nietzsche’s commitment to multiple, dynamic, and non-eternal interpretations, and to the idea that “it is absolutely not desirable that all men should act in the same way [Human, All Too Human, sec 25] helps explain his toying with polytheism, and with the “multiplicity of norms” implied by multiple deities [The Gay Science, sec 143]
2. A belief in the non-reality of morality is just a fraction of Nietzsche’s overall commitment to perspectivism. He believed that humans can never come to an absolute eternal Truth, and that all beliefs are appearance and “lies” that are constantly changing and self-overcoming without ever arriving at universal or ultimate Truths.
3. Zarathustra took the Zen master-like step of demanding that his disciples leave him and question his teachings [Thus Spoke Zarathustra, part 1].